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It's not the work that makes us miss going into the office so much

After more than a year of Covid-19 and working remotely there’s a growing nostalgia for our old workplaces

01 August 2021 - 00:01 By Ufrieda Ho
'Office at Night' by Edward Hopper, painted in the days of yore when WFH was a meaningless concept.
'Office at Night' by Edward Hopper, painted in the days of yore when WFH was a meaningless concept.
Image: Wiki Commons

Remember that unclaimed, untouched lunchbox that was in your office kitchen before lockdown? You can bet it's exactly where it was last seen in about mid-March 2020.

It's lurking there still, a thing of uncertain bacterial terror, scaring the microwave. That lunchbox is something you probably don't miss about the office.

Also not the countless times you tried to log in to your computer and realised you were locked out of the system again because you ignored IT's password-update reminders. You also knew then that you'd have to sheepishly call IT requesting help.

And yup, you'd be perfectly OK too if you never spent another Monday morning hunting for "your" chair because someone switched it, leaving you with the chair with wonky armrests and dubious crumbs in every groove and seam.

Workplace irritations we'd happily give up, but after more than a year of virus and working remotely there's a growing nostalgia for our office lives — back to those times when we could swipe our security cards at the entrance boom, signalling the start of a full day at work. We belonged to the buzz and hum of an office chasing the standstill of close of business on Friday.

The longing is not for work, not for the cubicles that contained us, and definitely not for the canteen food. What we're missing is the certainty of the roles we knew how to play in our work tribe. The rituals and routine related to work gave shape to our days. The same daily commute, the expected traffic rage and windscreen washers were part of the predictable. The ironed clothes we put on, our threaded eyebrows and new shoes to show off to the audience of switchboard ladies were the presentation of our most presentable selves.

We miss the affirmation of who we were refracted through the community at work. We measured ourselves up against allies, adversaries and even frenemies. Office politics, hierarchies, office dynamics, also the rules and knowing how we could bend them were the challenges we rose to. We found our competitive spirit and some fight too, and when this all imprinted on the making of our identities.

Those long hours spent in the office inevitably filled up to the edges of our other selves, as true as ever versions of us but maybe unrecognisable even to our people at home. But that there was a clear separation, a compartmentalisation of home and work, meant respite from each set of roles and responsibilities when we could switch between the two.

Things people miss most about working in the office:

• 49% miss seeing their colleagues and want to get out of the “bed-couch-shower-kitchen- desk” cycle.

• 44% miss office banter with colleagues and team mates.

• 26% miss in-person meetings.

• 20% say they find it difficult to “unplug” when they work from home because there’s no clear separation between “home” and “work”.

• 14% miss the water cooler chats; it’s easier to talk to colleagues in the office.

• 14% miss the stimulation of the office environment and the chance to “run into” someone.

• 11% feel lonely working at home and believe seeing people around you working boosts motivation.

Source: FlexJobs survey

At work we made connections and bonds; we became insiders who could decipher unspoken codes. We shared in gossip, mindless people-watching and pranked the OCD team leader by rearranging all her desktop figurines — all of it made meaningful because we were included.

When we navigated office politics as everyone had to, we got to meet a mighty cast of characters. From those we loathed and feared and also the ones who crept into our hearts and earned our admiration. There were the fence-sitters, the stirrers, also the sour dragons and can't-doers. We came to recognise the Machiavellis and the Lady Macbeths, ready with their swift knives to draw blood, or whispers full of poisonous fake conviction to share. There were the vanguards, standing firm, ready to organise and unafraid to bring a fight to management if needs be. There were the peacemakers, the go-betweens and the problem solvers. 

Office dynamics meant we knew when it was our turn to do the coffee run or to volunteer to rinse out the mugs for the celebratory dop for an impromptu account that the company landed. We'd pool our R50s because it was someone's something special, and we'd sit through smoke breaks to hear someone's worries even though we weren't smokers.

We miss the office for the water-cooler brainstorming — ideas formed as the burble of air bubbles popped at the surface. We miss the work wives who knew where we stashed the USB, where we stored last month's sales report and who knew our usual order for payday-pizza pig-out day without asking. A shout out too for the office cleaning fairies who emptied bins and brought dust bunnies to order. And there has to be a nod to the never-say-die office plants that did their thing filtering our air-conditioned indoors while surviving on last sips of Fanta Orange and other office misadventures in lieu of water.

One day maybe we will make it back to our offices. For now our workplaces are where the Wi-Fi is stable. We will log on to Teams and Zoom and meet now and again to strategise about Q4 targets while we stroke the dog with our feet and shoosh the kids before muting a microphone. And maybe before someone calls for a comfort break or someone's load-shedding schedule kicks in we may find out finally who is missing a lunchbox.